In order to answer the question it is first necessary to define conformity and obedience. According to Woods, (2001 p. 107):
We often adjust our actions or opinions so that they fit in well with those of other people. This is known as social conformity ......’
And Gross, (2001 pg.392) stated that:
Obedience is affected by direction (from somebody in higher authority).
This essay will explore circumstances in which we are likely to conform; or obey others. This will be done by drawing on research carried out by Milgram, Asch, Crutchfield and Zimbardo.
There are many ways in which we conform; some are useful others are not. For example, if we did not conform and adhere to the Highway Code there would be absolute chaos on our roads and lives would be at risk. At the other end of the scale we have the horrific example of ‘blind’ obedience in relation to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s – 40’s. In this situation Hitler’s soldiers obeyed and carried out their orders without question because their orders came from a legitimate authority. (Mcilveen & Gross, 1999, pp. 79-80).
In 1963 Stanley Milgram carried out a psychological experiment to try to discover why so many people co-operated and committed such atrocities in the concentration camps. This experiment involved groups of two people one – a confederate – played the part of a student trying to remember different words. The other person who was the subject played the role of a teacher and gave him the test. The teacher was told to ‘shock’ the ‘student’ every time he missed a word. Milgram thought that most people wouldn’t shock another human being and especially not all the way up to deadly levels of electricity. However, I transpired that 63% were obedient to their instructor (since he was the one in a position of power) and went all the way up to 450v which was lethal (Hayes, 2000 pp. 50-51).
Experiments carried out by Solomon Asch (1995) showed how easy it is to make people conform. In one of his experiments Asch used groups of 6-8 people who were told they were participating in a study on visual perception. He presented these subjects with 2 cards. On one card was a single ‘standard’ line; on the other were 3 ‘comparison’ lines. Participants were asked to judge which of the comparison lines were equal in length to the ‘standard’ line. Each of Asch’s groups only contained one real subject – the rest were confederates. Asch instructed each of the confederates to give the same wrong answer. There was a 75% conformity rate of the participants, meaning that they gave the same answer as the confederates, showing that people do not want to ‘appear different’ (Gross, 2001 pg. 382).
However, researchers discovered that if the participants were alloed to give their answers away from the group, then conformity decreased. If people were allowed to give their answers in private, then it is found that they will be less likely to be swayed by other people’s opinions. Again, in experiments, researchers like Asch (1955) have discovered that if the task is ambiguous or the problem made harder, then conformity levels are likely to increase. Under conditions where the problem is less obvious, then people are likely to go with the majority of the group (Gross, 2001 pg. 383).
An experiment carried out by Crutchfield (1954) found that pressure to conform can also occur without face to face communication. In this particular study each participant was placed in a separate booth facing a screen which displayed questions and what they believed were answers of the other participants. The questions were simple and the answers obvious. In around half the cases the answers were incorrect. Each participant was led to believe they were the last to answer having seen the other answers. Crutchfield in fact placed the answers there. This experiment suggests that in certain situations...